At their annual November meeting, the U.S. bishops failed to approve a pastoral message on the economy. “The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times” was approved by a clear majority of the bishops voting, but objections raised in large part by retired bishops were sufficient to deny the document the supermajority it needed.
All of which strikes me as a lost opportunity.
No doubt the draft document could have been improved; any ecclesial document can be improved (if you doubt that, try reading Vatican II’s Decree on the Means of Social Communication without taking a long winter’s nap). What was so striking about “The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times,” however, was that it was different: it was the work of pastors, not policy wonks; it anchored its reflections in the Gospel, not in the dismal science; and in a public environment becoming ever more secular, it used terms like “sin” and “virtue” to describe our present circumstances, what led us into them, and what might lead us into a better future.
It was, in other words, a pastoral reflection, bringing to bear on complex public questions the special expertise of pastors — which does not include public policy prescription. Everything about our lives, the document urged, has to be read in “light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” The main actors in the U.S. economy don’t typically read the economy that way; the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve certainly don’t. But bishops should. And it has to be asked whether those bishops who objected to “The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times” haven’t quite caught on to the New Evangelization, in which the Church measures everything in light of “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus (our) Lord” (Philippians 3:8).
In that light, as the draft document notes, certain things come into clearer focus.
In the light of the Gospel, we recognize that “there is great dignity and honor in human work,” such that chronic underemployment and unemployment are grave spiritual and moral issues, because they deprive men and women of the opportunity of “exercising (our) human gifts and putting them at the service of the wider community.”
In that light, we begin to understand that the collapse of a robust marriage culture in America has had harsh effects on economic life, even as the stresses of economic hard times further weaken families. And we can understand that “a culture of life and justice, including economic justice, will not be possible without a culture of strong marriages and families.”
In the light of the Gospel, we can, as the draft document notes, “more deeply appreciate the kind of character formation that governs everything” in economic life “from how a young mother pays her grocery bill on time to how experienced investors use the money others have entrusted to them.”
In that light, we can understand (as too much of the U.S. government seems not to understand) that “the social charity of the Church is not some extraneous aspect of our identity and mission as Catholics,” such that it can be conscripted by the state for its purposes — even if those purposes (like the HHS contraceptive/sterilization/abortifacient drug mandate) directly contravene moral truths we know from both the Gospel and from reason.
And finally, in the light of the Gospel, we can understand, after a rather dismal political season in which both parties avoided the v-word — “virtue” — like the plague, that today’s economic difficulties are not only about the measurables that appear in Labor Department statistics; those difficulties touch questions of the character of the American people.
“The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times” ended with a profound profession of faith: “The Lord Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever, continues to offer us the truth that sets us free and grounds our place and purpose within the circle of human affairs.” That, at least, is a statement that cannot be improved upon. In the future, the bishops would do well to keep it as the sheet-anchor of their address to public life.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.